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The World Cup – and what it could mean for Minnesota United

The World Cup, Earth’s greatest festival of fútbol, is upon us, and the first two weeks of the tournament are about as good as it gets. Every day has three, sometimes four games on the schedule, with the eyes of the world on every single match. Sure, there’s no United States at this edition of the tournament, for the first time in three decades – but that hasn’t stopped Stateside fans from binge-watching.

It’s been an excellent tournament so far, highlighted by a few big-name teams struggling in their opening games. Brazil could only manage a draw against Switzerland, Iceland held Argentina to the same 1-1 score, and Mexico put a beating on Germany – a game that ended 1-0 but could have been 4-0, if not for some boneheaded decision-making among the Mexican forwards. It’s all you could ask for, from the World Cup – drama and excitement and goals galore. This has been the best first round of games that I can remember.

Closer to home, things on the soccer front have been slower, though we haven’t been completely bereft. Minnesota United hasn’t played an MLS game since June 3, but in the interim, the Loons did play a pair of U.S. Open Cup games. A win against second-division FC Cincinnati, in a penalty shootout, was followed by a 1-0 road loss to Houston, ending Minnesota’s U.S. Open Cup run in the round of 16. Darwin Quintero missed a penalty, the Loons blew a couple of other good chances, and that was it – no more tournament soccer this year for United, barring an unexpected MLS playoff run.

Other than slightly delaying Minnesota’s return to league play (their next MLS game is Saturday, at the struggling Colorado Rapids), the World Cup could affect the Loons in other ways. Most of these have something to do with the two Minnesota United players that are at the World Cup, both of whom are with the Costa Rica squad.

The first is Francisco Calvo, the Minnesota captain. Calvo, who has played at center back for most of the past two years for the Loons, shifts to a slightly different position when playing for his country. Costa Rica manager Óscar Ramirez deploys Calvo as the left wingback in a 3-4-3 formation (that often looks more like a 5-4-1). Calvo, who is left-footed and comfortable on the ball, does look a little more at home in a role out on the wing – which might be a glimpse of his Minnesota future.

It’s no secret that the captain has struggled mightily in the center of defense this year – partially his own mistakes, partially due to troubles caused by those around him. Regardless, though, Calvo might be more comfortable, and useful, in a role that involves less defending and more of the ball – and his absence is giving Minnesota another chance to test out his potential replacement. Brent Kallman is again filling in at center back while Calvo is away, and he’s looked good paired with Michael Boxall so far – at least, more solid than Boxall and Calvo. With United struggling to find a defensive midfielder, it might make sense to push Calvo up the field – perhaps not on the wing, as with Costa Rica, but as a defensive midfielder to shield the back four.

The other possibility is that Calvo scores twice against Brazil on Friday, or something astonishing along those lines, and suddenly potential suitors are knocking at Minnesota’s door, looking for the potential transfer of the newest, hottest thing. It’s a possibility, but perhaps it’s even more of a possibility for the second Minnesota player at the World Cup, the one that most people forget is still technically a Loon – winger Johan Venegas.

United acquired Venegas in a whirlwind of moves around the 2016 expansion draft – the Loons selected Chris Duvall from New York, then swapped Duvall and a pile of money to Montreal for Venegas. In 2017, though, he never really got his season off the ground, showing a certain cavalier disinterest in anything resembling hard work. It was enough to get him benched, then sent back to Costa Rica on loan for 2018, where he’s had more success for perennial league champions Deportivo Saprissa. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Saprissa will visit Minnesota on July 11th for a friendly.)

I suppose it’s possible that Venegas, re-energized after a year in Costa Rica, will storm back into MLS and take over the United attack. It seems more likely, though, that the Loons are looking to place him somewhere permanently. They’d love for him to do something amazing in the World Cup to raise his profile, and potentially earn a move elsewhere.

Costa Rica has two matches remaining at this World Cup – the aforementioned match with Brazil on Friday, and another next Wednesday against Switzerland. It will be an uphill battle for Calvo, Venegas, and company to qualify for the knockout stages, after Los Ticos lost 1-0 against Serbia. Loons fans will be pulling for them, though – and will be looking at those two players in particular, trying to divine what the future might hold.


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